Welcome back, then, Wayne Rooney. Captain, goalscorer, chief creator and senior man. Little wonder, perhaps, that Rooney, in his latest incarnation as international factotum-in-chief, found himself surrounded by at least four San Marino players pretty much every time he picked up the ball at Wembley on a night of unrelenting and often monotonous attack versus defence.
As England wrestled awkwardly at times against opponents who defended with some resilience for the entire 90 minutes, it was Rooney who provided the game's most encouraging moments, most notably in scoring twice in a 5-0 victory to reach 31 England goals, putting him fifth in the all time scoring charts behind Michael Owen, Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker and Bobby Charlton.
This was some way short of the bravura display of attacking generalship Roy Hodgson might have been hoping to draw from a player who remains, more so than for any of his previous England managers, a rather smudged and dog-eared trump card. But there was some small encouragement to be taken here on what was – as is customary for a man whose England career threatens to disintegrate into a succession of comebacks – another comeback of sorts. Injured against the Ukraine at Wembley last month and peripheral in the Ukraine this summer, England's stand-in captain had spoken with some maturity during the week about the need to show maturity, shown leadership on the issue of leadership and generally talked up his own credentials as a sober head among the current tyro squad.
This was a team set up to play to his strengths. After the variations on 4-4-2 that have been the template for 'Early Hodgson', England lined up in a fashionable 4-2-3-1 formation, with Rooney in the middle of the three, performing a hard-running, hyperactive, anglicised variation on the No10 role. From there he went pretty much where he wanted in a skewed first-half of occasionally frantic, occasionally meandering attack against blanket defence. It was Rooney's early hooked pass over his shoulder into Theo Walcott's path that created the first chance after six minutes, Walcott failing to reach the ball but finding himself felled inside the area by San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini's scandalous flying body-check assault, which should have brought both a penalty and a red card.
Still Rooney continued to drift in search of space against opponents ill-equipped to follow his movement, instead adopting a shifting wall of blue around the edge of their own area, not so much zonal defence as the Saturday afternoon in Sainsbury's approach, forming a dense blockage across a narrow band of the Wembley turf that stifled England's attempts to play the kind of neat, penetrative short-passing football that, in truth, often eludes them.
The game's first corner after 12 minutes saw Rooney skim a header narrowly wide when he should have scored. And so he began to drop deeper, often an indication that all is not well, and, for some, a sign that he lacks the patience to exploit some of the more soft-pedalled aspects of the second striker's role: the refusal to be drawn to the ball, the ability just to stand still for a bit now and then.
England, for all their perspiration, were getting closer, and the pressure duly told as Danny Welbeck was tripped by Simoncini receiving the ball after a fine angled-run inside the area. Rooney took the penalty the way likes to – hitting it with power to the goalkeeper's right and using his instep to find the corner. Wembley, for all the false starts, the trapped revs, the spluttering on the launch pad of his middle years, still loves him, and briefly the chants of "Roo-ney!" rang around from all sides.
Albeit, Rooney could scarcely have hoped for more accommodating opposition. There is a fair case to say San Marino, joint-bottom of the Fifa rankings, are probably the worst team he has ever played against (Crawley, Exeter and Shrewsbury would fancy their chances) and in truth two goals here confirmed that Rooney has become something of a Hammer of the Minnows at international level. In the last four years he has scored against Kazakhstan Belarus, Slovakia, Andorra Croatia Switzerland Bulgaria and Ukraine, while only two of his 29 goals overall have come against opponents currently in Fifa's top-10.
For now, though, never mind the quality. As San Marino wearied in the second-half, the thick blue line dropping deeper and deeper, Rooney continued to play wherever his instincts took him. His second goal was an agreeably explosive affair; a loose ball sent curling low into the far corner, to take him clear of Nat Lofthouse, Sir Tom Finney and Alan Shearer in the all-time stakes.
Only San Marino, perhaps, but for Rooney the night had a rehabilitative feel. Poland will provide a far sterner test in Warsaw, but as he left the field to a standing ovation here there was still a sense, dimly, of a first significant step taken under his fourth full-time manager for England's new junior senior man.